Friday, February 25, 2011

The Great End Game?

While all eyes are currently focused on Libya, the unrest in Bahrain might be of more interest in the medium term as this revolt may have more bearing on The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. What follows may be a long draw of the bow, but the lead up to WWI is not entirely dissimilar to events in the middle east. In the former case, several Balkan nations experienced civil unrest/war until the assassination of the Archduke became the trigger for the powerful nations to mobilize.

In Born of the Great Game - echoes of the past, I attempted to summarize some of the causes of discontent, with a nod to the historical colonial backgrounds behind the current configuration of most countries in the Middle East. Kuwait and Bahrain appear to be typical Colonial British Era constructs, albeit built on the back of some local Royal, but in essence they have a similar strategic role as Singapore or Gibraltar. Namely, they serve as good control points and naval bases along a strategic trade route. The same reason the US has several military bases in Bahrain (see also).

While US relations with 'the elites' of Bahrain appear to have been cozy, The New York times writes that US views on the Shia majority have been somewhat negative.
Dim View of U.S. Posture Toward Bahraini Shiites Is Described
Michael Slackman
As Bahrain’s leaders struggle to hold back a rising popular revolt against their absolute rule, Washington’s posture toward the Shiite majority, which is spearheading the opposition, could prove crucial to future relations with this strategically valuable Persian Gulf nation. The United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based here, helping ensure the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz and the gulf, and safeguarding American interests in this volatile region.

Over the years, the military, according to the advisers and the human rights advocate, believed that King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and his court were reform-minded leaders who could advance democracy and preserve stability. That narrative contrasts sharply with the experience of the Shiites, as documented by human rights groups and some of the military’s own advisers.

“The problem has been that we have been doing everything we can to cuddle up to the Khalifas and have been consciously ignoring at best the situation of Bahraini Shiites,” said Gwenyth Todd, a former political adviser to the Navy in Bahrain from 2004 to 2007.

“The military here always took a position against the human rights community,” Mr. Rajab said. “The U.S. did not build up any good relations with the opposition. They always categorize them as fundamentalist or extremist in their reports, in order to justify their political position in support of the government.”

“If the United States does not modify its policy now to take into account the Shia, there is a danger that worries me, if we are seen as backing the government to the end,” said a United States government official in Bahrain who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.
Several sources cite Saudi nervousness at the fall of long time ally Hosni Mubarak, whom they may host as a guest, but also the fracas in their small neighbor Bahrain.
The nervousness here is mainly due to the presence in Suadi Arabia of a small community of Shia Mulsims in the East neighboring Bahrain. The animosity is due to the long standing conflict between Arabs and Persians (ie Iran), the latter being predominantly of the Shia branch of Islam. Possibly a second reason for the nervousness is that Bahrain may serve as a small microcosm of sorts for the situation in Saudi Arabia itself.
Standing by their man...

Unrest Encircles Saudis, Stoking Sense of Unease
Robert F Worth, New York Times

Saudi Arabia is far less vulnerable to democracy movements than other countries in the region, thanks to its vast oil wealth, its powerful religious establishment and the popularity of its king.

But the country’s rulers were shaken by the forced departure of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, a close and valued ally. They are anxiously monitoring the continuing protests in neighboring Bahrain and in Yemen, with which Saudi Arabia shares a porous 1,100-mile border. Those concerns come on top of long-festering worries about the situation in Iraq, where the toppling of Saddam Hussein has empowered Iran, Saudi Arabia’s great rival and nemesis.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Saving Solar From The Floods (Levy)

The federal government's proposed new "flood levy" to pay for cleaning up after the Queensland floods had a number of flaws (even ignoring the fundamental injustice of making regular taxpayers foot the whole bill leaving business untouched), chief among them the axing of a number of alternative energy programs.

The Greens (with support from GetUp) seem to have managed to block at least one of the cuts, with the "solar flagships" program getting a reprieve (the bill has passed the house of reps but still remains stuck in the Senate).

PM Gillard originally tried to claim the programs were unnecessary given her intention to put a cost on carbon emissions one day - given the governments failure to do this in its first term (and the general inadequacy of the CPRS bill they put forward back then) its unsurprising people want to keep the programs in place.

The ABC has a look at the issue - Gillard is gambling with her climate credibility.
AT HER RECENT NATIONAL Press Club address, Prime Minister Julia Gillard rationalised Labor's decision to cut its investment in renewable energy to fund the flood levy on the basis that these policies "are no longer necessary" with a carbon price. Last week, addressing the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, Gillard argued that "a carbon price will drive another sweeping technological revolution like Information Technology did in the 1980s and 90s."

Both cases reveal that those advising the PM grossly misunderstand climate and energy policy.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Gas Rush

The ABC's Four Corners program has a look at resistance to the coal seam gas rush in Queensland - The Gas Rush (it can be seen again later this week on ABC News 24 or online with iView). Robert Gottliebsen at The Business Spectator (who cheerled the mining industry's campaign against Kevin Rudd and his mining tax) seems somewhat alarmed by the idea of a fight between farmers and the gas industry - A cloud over coal-seam gas - it seems its not as easy to dismiss cranky cockies as it was a Labor Prime Minister.
With access to guerrilla activists and their undercover filming, Matthew Carney reports on the coalition of farmers, local townspeople and even a corporate titan who want to halt Australia's gas rush.

Imagine you are running a successful farming operation; then one day a man from the gas company arrives with news that a coal seam gas field lies beneath your feet. From there 3 wells are sunk, then another 18. And then a proposal for another 30, turning your property into a thriving gas field, while threatening the viability of the working farm.

Down the road, the neighbour sells after 48 wells are sunk into his property. The compensation of $250 a year, per well was not much inducement to stay. The wells themselves are estimated to be making the companies a million dollars a year, each.

And then the gas company says they might have to move your house to sink another well into the land.

This is the experience of just one of the farmers featured on Four Corners this week.

Right across Australia gas companies are drilling down through the earth to extract the resource that the industry says will be one of the answers to our future energy needs. Already some $31 billion worth of gas projects have been approved by the Federal Government, which are expected to generate thousands of jobs and billions in revenues.

But this precious resource lies beneath homes and farms, and the food bowls of Australia.

And this is where the gas companies are drilling; prompting a heated conflict over who should pay the price for our energy supplies.

Matthew Carney reports from communities in Queensland and NSW that are directly affected. Farmers tell of their feelings of violation and frustration; their belief that they are losing control of their properties and their ability to plan for the future. As one says "It's really frustrating. We have taken on extra debt to fund our farming business and we are powerless to stop people accessing it and abusing it."

But it's not only what's happening above ground that worries them.

One farmer claims his water supplies are dropping alarmingly as the coal seam drilling causes the water table to drop at an accelerated rate. This cattle farmer believes he may only have two years supply left in one of his key water bores.

Then there is the danger posed by faulty gas wells. The program shows local activists testing for leaks and finding highly explosive gasses leaking at alarming levels.

Others talk of their fears that Australia's greatest underground water resource, the Great Artesian Basin will be contaminated and depleted. Four Corners details cases of water supplies being tainted by salty toxic water.

Many of those affected are beginning to work together on a national campaign to call a halt to "The Gas Rush".


Related Links
AgForce demands talks on coal seam gas
Fears over gas drilling more than hot air
Hunt on for coal-seam gas investors
Lot feeders speak out against coal seam gas
Gas search sparks toxic water fears

Cross posted from Peak Energy

Born of the Great Game - echoes of the past?

The following is hastily compiled, poorly researched and slightly off topic... but hopefully draws a little attention to something that is missing from recent news coverage about the recent revolutions in Arab countries.

Since the Tunisian revolt and removal of the repressive regime of President Ben Ali dissent has spread throughout "the Arab World". The Dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt followed with more protests occurring in other countries in the region notably Bahrain, Yemen and Libya.

While some partisan commentators were quick to spruik the threat of Islamic this or Islamic that, and others the "incompetence" of the Obama administration for not predicting these incidents, a few have attempted to identify the common themes.

In Food, civil unrest and anarchy I linked to some articles suggesting that food price was one common theme.
Arabs rejoin the world
David Hirst (from The Guardian), The Age.

No other such geopolitical ensemble has so long boasted such a collection of dinosaurs, such inveterate survivors from an earlier, totalitarian era; no other has so completely missed out on the waves of ''people's power'' that swept away the Soviet empire and despotisms in Latin America, Asia and Africa. In rallying at last to this now universal but essentially Western value called democracy, they are in effect rejoining the world, catching up with history that has left them behind.

If it was in Tunis that the celebrated ''Arab street'' first moved, the country in which - apart from their own - Arabs everywhere immediately hoped that it would move next was Egypt.
Mr Hirst then gives his own reasons for Egypt being important in shaping the views and thoughts of the region, but forgets probably the most important. For centuries the Universities and Schools of Egypt have been at the centre of Arabic and Islamic thinking.
[The] burning questions will be about where the Arab democratic revolution strikes next. Though Europe in 1989 is the obvious precedent, the kings and presidents may not fall like dominoes as the Honeckers (East Germany) and Ceausescus (Romania) did. And, in the wake of Ben Ali and Mubarak, others may not fall so easily or prettily either. That is already apparent from the two latest, and most dramatic, episodes in the almost unceasing pro-democracy turbulence that grips a good half-dozen Arab countries.

The 200-year-old Bahraini monarchy may have currently retreated into an attempt at reconciliation, but this regime has already shown how tenacious and tough - and bloody - it can be.

As for Libya, there could hardly ever have been much doubt that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, cruellest and most capricious of Arab dictators, would seek to do what he has always openly proclaimed he would do to any opponent of his 41-year-old Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab State of the Masses: which is to ''cut them to pieces''.

But most regimes are candidates. Among the few likely exceptions, perhaps the most important, and certainly the most apt, is Lebanon. Ever turbulent, ever the most exposed of Arabs to the consequences of what other Arabs do, it might logically seem destined to be among the first to go. But it isn't - mainly because, alone in the region, it has always been a democracy of sorts.
All very democratically inspiring - and forgetful. Jeremy Bowen at the BBC has a slightly better interpretation.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Nuclear power's great leap forward

The Climate Spectator has yet another article spruiking the fantasy of the nuclear renaissance, with all the usual wild claims being made about Gen IV reactors (only 20 years away - we need to get on board right now !) - Nuclear power's great leap forward.
The Chinese Academy of Science announced on January 26 that it planned to finance the development of a program to develop thorium fuelled molten salt reactors (TFMSR). This is the first of four "strategic leader in science and technology projects" that the Chinese Academy of Science will be supporting. ...

The Academy stated that"The scientific goal is to develop a new generation of nuclear energy systems [and to achieve commercial] use [in] 20 years or so. We intend to complete the technological research needed for this system and to assert intellectual property rights to this technology."...

So, can we expect to see the Chinese announcement catalyze the countries and researchers who have been working on TFMSR’s for years to put together a team to deliver a second TFMSR program?

Given the intellectual capital developed 50 years ago by the talented team at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, under the leadership of the visionary Dr Alvin M Weinberg, it would be surprising if a team were not assembled and funded to deliver a second TFMSR program.

Well - I'm sure the reason it failed the first time around is no longer applicable - so we'll see if these reactors can compete with solar and wind in 20 years or so time.

The CS has another article criticising a lot of the fantasising going on by the nuclear lobbyists - Behind nuclear's new face.
With Martin Ferguson calling for a nuclear power debate at the ALP National Conference and the Weekend Australian’s front page headline reading, "Nuclear power's friendly new face," it's looking like the nuclear lobby has been busy.

Of course that’s what lobby groups do – lobby. Except in this case the lobbying is being done by the Minister responsible for Australia’s renewable energy portfolio and the story in The Australian was written by a reporter, not a lobbyist.

It would be tempting to think that, after four weeks of fire, floods, and historic storms, the national debate would be focusing on how to make our country more resilient with tough, flexible housing options, infrastructure designed for the 21st century and a sustainable, cheap, low-risk energy mix.

But no. The months leading up to the Labor Party's National Conference will now be filled with environmentalists calling on the Prime Minister to clarify her position on nuclear power – with all the accompanying leadership speculation that will encourage. And it will be necessary to spend precious time and resources once again outlining the reality of nuclear power.

If it remains on the agenda, it looks like nothing but a train wreck for federal Labor. However the issues raised by The Australian need to be addressed well before the National Conference in late July.

As the headline suggests, the story is about the possibilities still open to a nuclear power industry – nuclear power as friendly and small. But there are five central assertions made by the nuclear industry in the article that, in the interests of an informed debate, need closer examination.

The first is contained in the opening lines: “Nuclear electricity generation is undergoing expansion in some countries and intensified research as nations seek to restrict carbon output and diversify their sources of power.”

Wrong. Nuclear power is declining in market share. In fact, while expansion is happening in China, Korea and Russia, in the rest of the world, the number of reactors are stagnating or decreasing. In Europe, for example, there has been a net decrease of nuclear capacity by 7,200 MW since year 2000. Twenty years ago, in 1989, there were 177 reactors in what is now known as the EU-27; today there are only 144. What we see is a decline of nuclear power, not an expansion.

Secondly, there is the suggestion that "mini reactors may be one way to go, supplying specific locations."

Mini nuclear plants are the stuff of science fiction. None of them have even developed enough on paper to be seriously considered for construction. None are licenced, which by itself is a process that takes many years.

Thirdly, the article raises the potential of Generation IV reactors, saying they are "now under research for possible future development." The Generation IV project covers several technologies that now lie more in the realm of theory, such as gas-cooled fast reactors, and others that would be helium-cooled instead of the present water-cooling.

Nobody seriously thinks about deployment of Gen IV before 2030 – including the International Energy Agency in its most recent scenarios (World Energy Outlook 2010, or Energy Technology Perspectives 2010).

The article‘s fourth point is that nuclear power "has gained support among some environmentalists and many long-standing opponents as an effective way to reduce global carbon emissions and combat climate change."

This is nonsense. The fact is, no established environmental groups support nuclear power, quite the opposite. During the climate conference in Poznan in 2008, more than 300 NGOs signed a declaration against nuclear power and its inclusion in the CDM – including every large group such as WWF, Friends of the Earth, CAN, etc.

The fifth point they make is that "Finland has several plants already and is expanding its complex at Olkiluoto from two to three plants."

The third reactor of Olkiluoto has been a disaster for Europe’s “nuclear renaissance”. Promoted as a flagship of brand new, improved, reliable and economic Generation III+ reactors, the project was passed through the Finnish parliament in 2002 with a price tag of €2.5 billion. When the construction started in 2005, the contract was already at €3.2 billion. Since then, thousands of technical problems have caused massive delays, so the construction is now officially four years behind schedule (the reactor should have started in May 2009 but will not be in commercial operation before 2014), and the cost has climbed up to €6 billion so far, with more troubles, delays and extra costs very likely to come.

Next, the article asserts that "a true environmental cost-benefit analysis is difficult because of the uncertainty inherent in the long-term storage and disposal of waste.“

"Uncertainty" is the operative word. What we do know is the UK government is preparing to pay well over $A110 billion to clean up some of its old installations. Though it’s fair to say that while no one knows how much it costs to safely store nuclear waste for over 100,000 years, it‘s probably a lot.

Finally, the article says that: "Nuclear power provides an environmental benefit by almost entirely eliminating airborne wastes and particulates generated during power generation. This is offset by the relatively small volumes of radioactive wastes that are produced that must be managed prior to ultimate disposal."

This is not true. The largest volumes of nuclear waste are generated during the fuel chain, ie. during uranium mining, processing, enrichment and fuel fabrication. Very roughly, operation of one reactor of 1,000 MW capacity results in hundreds of thousands of tonnes of radioactive waste in the front end of the cycle (ie. before the fuel eventually reaches the reactor), then has routine emissions during operation (namely tritium – and this is not negligible, there are solid and strong epidemiological studies proving increased incidence of childhood cancer in the neighbourhood or nuclear reactors).

The most dangerous waste, however, comes in the form of spent fuel: One 1000 MW reactor generates about 20 tonnes of spent fuel every year. This is enough to poison millions of people, and will remain deadly for over 100,000 years. Those 20 tonnes of spent fuel also contain 200 kg of plutonium – enough to build 20 nuclear bombs.

The nuclear energy debate in Australia is diverting attention away from the real need to plan how we harness our unparalleled renewable resources. The real question is, in whose interest is it? One thing is for certain, it’s not the Australian public.

The ABCs The Drum Unleashed ran an article by Vassilios Agelidis (Director of CERPA and Prof. School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications UNSW) back in December addressing this issue - Too late for nuclear.
Once again the call has arisen for Australians to debate whether the nation should adopt nuclear power as part of our energy mix.

It's a divisive issue that can arouse deep passions among those for and against. But instead of diving into this old argument yet again, we really need to ask whether it is in fact too late and the nuclear option has already passed Australia by.

[The] course of events in Australia up till now means that, even if we opted for nuclear tomorrow, it will not be possible any time soon, and the reality is it should not be pursued at all because it's simply not our best option.

[The] Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering considers the new energy technology choices available to the nation and finds nuclear may be cost-competitive with wind or a combination gas turbine-and-carbon capture model (CCGT-CCS) in 20 to 30 years time. By 2040, it rates CCGT-CCS, geothermal, solar thermal and nuclear as cost-competitive.

But the ATSE considers each of these technologies only in isolation. A viable and realistic model, however, will be based on integrated renewable energy sources and energy storage systems working together in a complementary, hybrid system.

Meeting our future energy needs is going to be expensive, but we can choose where we spend. Investing in technologies where Australia has significant intellectual property and expertise will not only provide the platform for future hybrid renewable energy generation systems (wind and solar for instance, which are shown to have complementary availability), but will would allow us to develop energy technologies rather than import them.

Nuclear is not a cheap option. [Costs] on the Olkiluoto nuclear plant, being built by French firm Areva, have blown out to almost double the initial 3 billion euro price tag and the reactor remains years from completion (see above). Let’s not forget... that nuclear power is based on a finite resource and requires enormous amounts of cooling water, limiting possible locations within Australia to our already crowded coastlines. Dry cooling or hybrid systems do exist but [may not be] suited to hot climates such as ours.

If we were to adopt nuclear energy, our investments will instead benefit the countries that invested in nuclear earlier than us, such as France and South Korea, and have a lead of many decades in technology and infrastructure.

Those countries that have already taken the lead to address their own energy needs need not be the beneficiaries of our poorly thought-out investment decisions if we consider carefully what sort of energy future we can build for ourselves.
The discussion thread following the article runs to 204 comments of frequently bitter claim, counter claim and accusation. Observing this and other discussion threads I notice some confusion and misunderstanding among seemingly intelligent people. Just because the words "thorium", "breeder" and "reactor" can be formed into a string that passes the linguistic requirements of grammatical sentence structure does not instantly mean the object a/. exists or b/. is a viable "solution". Placing the roman numerals "IV" after the abbreviation "Gen" does not make a planned or developmental technology instantly mature and rapidly deployable. Notice the words "planned" and "scheduled" from the Chinese Academy above.

The Economist notes that large scale reactors may indeed be a thing of the past - Thinking Small:Mini nuclear reactors. With referecne to the troubled Finnish reactor...
Combining several small reactors based on simple, proven designs could be a better approach than building big ones.

But despite the best efforts of EDF and Areva, which are building the reactors, both are behind schedule and, at over $5 billion apiece, well over budget. With results like these, it is little wonder that the vaunted “nuclear renaissance” has failed to materialise.

A global race is under way to develop small-reactor designs, says Paul Genoa of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry body in Washington, DC. He estimates that more than 20 countries have expressed serious interest in buying mini-reactors.

Regulatory and licensing procedures are lengthy, so little will be built until around 2017, he says. But after that the industry is expected to take off. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates that by 2030 at least 40 (and possibly more than 90) small reactors will be in operation.

Russia is an early adopter. Rosatom, the state nuclear-energy giant, is building a floating, towable power station in a St Petersburg shipyard. The Akademik Lomonosov, due to set sail in 2012 for waters near Russia’s far-east town of Vilyuchinsk, will be followed by at least four other floating nuclear plants for the country’s Arctic regions.

And at a mere $550m a pop they cost a fraction of what a traditional reactor does (though they also provide less power).

One advantage of small reactors is their modularity. Extra units can be added to a plant over the years, incrementally boosting output as capital becomes available and electricity demand rises. Moreover, a modular facility would generate revenue as soon as the first reactor is fired up, after a few years of construction. A big reactor traditionally takes a decade to erect.

Not all nuclear nations have entered the fray. France has studied micro-reactors’ potential in spaceship propulsion, but for generating power on Earth, big reactors are best, says Christophe Béhar, in charge of nuclear energy at the country’s Atomic Energy Commission.

Sceptics fear that these small, cheap reactors will not be enough to revive the nuclear industry. Mycle Schneider ... says licensing and building small plants will take far too long to be profitable. As the costs of solar, wind and biogas power continue to fall, investors will increasingly favour household energy-producing kit and transmission technologies that let consumers sell excess production to neighbours and utilities, he says. South Africa’s decision in September to abort construction of a small reactor, even though about $1.3 billion had been spent, illustrates the sort of financial risk the sector faces.
But proliferation fears remain, and may even be worse with small scale reactors like those described above. The interesting thing is the move by team nuclear towards modularity which has been a key concept among team renewables for some time.

Cross posted from Peak Energy with additional material by SP.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

ABC Big Ideas - Greening the Wharf debate

The ABC will be screening a segment from a Q&A at the Sydney Theatre Company feauturing Beyond Zero Emissions' Matthew Wright on Wednesday - Greening The Wharf.
Moderated by Tony Jones with panellists including The Hon. Bob Carr, Dr Zhengrong Shi, Graham Bradley and Sam Mostyn.

A 15 minute excerpt will run on 15 February on ABC1 TV as part of the Best of Big Ideas broadcast.

The full one hour will feature on ABC1 TV on Wednesday 16 February at 11am and will also be available through ABC online i-view.

BZE will also be featuring at the Sustainable Living Festival in Melbourne on the weekend.

Cross posted from Peak Energy

Food, civil unrest and anarchy

Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o' nights.

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

Julius Caesar

Food and food security has come up again recently as a serious topic since the instability in the middle east (see also the food links at the bottom of the Feed Me page).  Marketwatch takes an investor focused look at rising food prices:

As investors nervously watch the situation in Egypt, one theme has emerged that seems to underpin the protests there and elsewhere: rising food prices.

Last month, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported that its index of farm commodity prices reached a new record. Other commodity prices, notably fuel, are also rising. The increased commodity costs have contributed to the overthrow of the Tunisian government and civil unrest in Ghana, Algeria, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. In India, people have taken to the streets in protest over rising onion prices.

With the turmoil in Tunisia and Egypt, some believe that governments in troubled neighborhoods may start snapping up more food to try and ensure supplies for their disgruntled masses, which could add even more to food price pressures. In sum, while precious metals and energy tend to dominate headlines, agricultural commodities may be even more strongly positioned to gain ground in this season of political uncertainty.

The spike in food prices present investors with three questions to consider: What kind of inflationary impact will the price gains have? How will rising food prices affect the political risk equation in emerging markets? And is it time to get long or go longer agricultural commodities?

Friday, February 11, 2011

New Zealand Tidal power station approved

The NZ Herald has an article on the slow progress of a tidal power project in NZ - Tidal power station for Kaipara approved.
More than half a billion dollars will be spent on sinking tidal power turbines to the seabed of the Kaipara Harbour after the approval of New Zealand's first tide-driven power station.

But the Environment Court has set conditions of consent for the project after a year of mediation among four objectors.

The key requirement for applicant Crest Energy is two years of environmental monitoring and evaluation and starting with only three turbines.

The company wants to sink up to 200 turbines off the harbour mouth in a $600 million plan to harness the swift tidal flow to power homes from Albany to Cape Reinga.

It appealed to the court in 2008 when Northland Regional Council allowed only 100 turbines to be sunk.

Cross-posted from Peak Energy.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Public Planning and Policy Post Petroleum – PIA NO. 6 Finale

This is the final in my series of rough reviews of the special edition of The Australian Planner (Vol 47:4).

To recap, the first few articles (The Shorter PIA – Australian Oil Vulnerability, Shorter PIA NO. 2) summarized the current position of Australian cities and used scenarios to explore the likely impacts of oil depletion. Later articles explored the possible role of cycling (Cycling over the peak - PIA NO.3), the effect of oil depletion and urban development on children, mobility and society (Where do the children play? PIA NO. 4) and the role of planning and governance at all political levels (Transurbanization – PIA NO. 5).

The first paper below picks up the story from an earlier article (Petroleum depletion scenarios for Australian cities)

Planning public transport networks in the post-petroleum era
John Stone and Paul Mees, pages: 263-271

There is no doubt that a compact and connected urban form enhances the potential for oil-free mobility through walking, cycling, and greater public transport use. Therefore, some localised intensification of residential development … and, perhaps more important, concentration of employment and other trip destinations, are necessary objectives for urban planners responding to oil vulnerability.

[But we] argue that it is not necessary to intensify land-use across the whole city before significant improvement in both patronage and economic efficiency of public transport becomes possible.

Alternatives to the car will need to be effective at existing urban residential densities.

Back to the future?
The challenge of peak oil seems daunting, but … [for] the first time since the end of post-War petrol rationing, there is a serious prospect that public transport may become the dominant motorised travel mode in Australian cities. Urban Australia has dealt with constrained oil supplies in the past. Petrol rationing was introduced during the Second World War and remained in force until February 1950.

Table 1. Travel to work in Melbourne, 1951

(Source: ORC,1951, p. 35)

Transport mode Share of workers (%)
Train 26.0
Tram 22.1
Bus 8.8
Total Public Transport 56.9
Bicycle 9.5
Walk (or work from home) 14.1
Total Non-motorised 23.6
Car 16.2
Van/Truck 2.0
Motorcycle 1.3
Total Private Motorised 19.5

Table Reproduced from page 264.

However, the need to conserve fuel and labour saw service levels constrained, leading to overcrowding. While this ensured healthy surpluses for public transport operators, it also created public dissatisfaction. In the minds of many members of the public, trains, trams and buses became synonymous with discomfort and crowding (Davison, 2004, chapts 1-2).

Monday, February 7, 2011

Singapore - sustainability in the mist?

A photo critique of some "sustainability" features at the Marina Bay Sands MEGA development in Singapore.

Singapore has some claims of being a modern sustainable city. And while we can all marvel at and envy the efficient public transport system, there are some aspects of the city that suggest that technocratic thinking has limits.

On a recent visit I took a stroll through the latest addition to the cities "attractions" - the Marina Bay Sands area. The promenade around the entire area is concrete, a material well known for its capacity to absorb and retain heat. However should you find yourself overcome from the tropical (cement enhanced) heat, respite is at hand. Located near some towering buildings are three large stainless steel and glass umbrella shaped structures.

On closer inspection you can see that each of these structures is a large outdoor fan, each powered by 4kW of solar cells.

Don't worry! To "save power" these monsters only spin when hot tired souls activate the motion sensors at the rim. The specification plate proudly displayed nearby tells passersby that each machine is 5.3m high, 8m wide with a fan diameter of 3.5m. Personal observation (i.e. standing under operating fan) suggests that the effective cooling capacity on my visit was zero (see below).

In the distance, behind the moving wind sculpture, is the marvel of the new casino. The large object on the roof purposefully resembles a ship - representing the trading source of Singaporean wealth. This platform also contains a rooftop park.

A better use of the sun can be seen in the nearby (small?) Art gallery where the roof consists of several kW of solar glass.

We should remind ourselves that Singapore is a port, and has been for a long time. On the assumption that the British Navy is not stupid, we might also assume that a port developed in the time of sail might also be located at a site with some reasonable occurrence of wind.

The next piece of sustainability sculpture on the way to Marina Sands consists of over 250m of stainless steel pipe located at a height of between 5 - 8m. Lovingly named 'A Stroll in the Mist', each pipe had a diameter of about 30cm and was activated by 12 motion sensors. The stated aim of the structure is to:
As part of the environmental initiative, it sprays clouds of mist to reduce the ambient temperature and provides a cooling experience throughout the day. At night, it provides an integrated light-and-sound experience. Motion, temperature and humidity detectors help to control the release of the mist and also help to conserve energy.

Again, notice all that nice concrete. On closer inspection we can see that the effective cooling capacity on this particular day was ZERO.

A fine mist, even in the most moderate of breezes will just be blown sideways. Hidden in the adjacent shrubbery I noticed the sustainable source of the misting, and at great risk of being identified as a suspicious person (the announcement you hear at every station on the MRT) and promptly thrown in jail, I took this picture.

Three large pumps hidden in large 1m3 boxes draw power from this little substation.

This misty experience leads us to a palm lined path with the barest hint of water sensitive urban design. The gaps between the concrete are grassed and lead to a subsurface drain. Again, note all the concrete.

Presumably all the runoff from this site goes to the adjacent enclosed bay which is probably the single most sustainable feature at the site and serves as an auxiliary water storage. Though I noticed the water had a nice green tinge. Singapore has a curious water dilemma, both too much and too little water. When it rains, the considerable impervious surfaces in the city frequently threaten to flood parts of the city. But in the dry season, there is insufficient water on the island to supply the city: water imports, reuse/recycling and desalination must be used.

And finally, where has the sojourn through the mist brought us?

James Kunstler might observe that the scale of this shopping center totally dehumanizes the recreational shoppers (those small things on the walkways). All air conditioned at ~25oC of course.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Australia's Power Paradox

The SMH reports that Sydney's heatwave (which has been inducing a lot of lethargy here at Peak Energy headquarters) prompted record power consumption in NSW this week - Third day of heat is the one to beware of. At least we aren't about to be deluged by a flood or trashed by a cyclone, unlike our friends in Queensland.
The weather also pushed electricity consumption to a record level of 14,744 megawatts yesterday. This exceeded the previous summer peak of 14,101MW reached on February 6, 2009, and the state's all-time record of 14,289MW, which occurred during the winter of 2008. The increased use of airconditioners has pushed summer usage to new highs.

Given that building peak generation capacity and the associated transmission infrastructure is responsible for a significant slice of our rapidly rising power bills, you'd think some effort would be out into finding ways to reduce the peak (or follow the load locally by encouraging more solar PV) via demand management. The Climate Spectator has a few words to say about this - The easy way to cut power bills.
Energy highways don’t do pedestrian crossings, roundabouts or traffic lights – what the consumer wants, it gets. So, when they all want it at the same time, the energy market needs a Sydney Harbour bridge the equivalent of 50 lanes wide (actually, pick your own number, but it’s a lot) that will then remain unused for the rest of the year.

All of this costs a lot of money, and it’s the consumer who pays for it. The Australian energy regulator late last year estimated that 10 per cent of the country’s transmission infrastructure – assets worth some $3.5 billion – gets used for less than 1 per cent of the year. The rest of the time it sits idle. Not that this greatly upsets the infrastructure providers in the Australian energy market – the more poles they build and wires they hang, the more money they get. ...

The biggest challenge is how to manage the growth in peak demand, which is growing at a phenomenally faster rate than baseload power. It will come as something of a shock to most consumers that their soaring power bills are not the fault of green energy subsidies, but mostly because of the neighbour’s newly installed air conditioning unit. Or their own.

The conventional view of how to solve this problem has been to implement some sort of congestion tax, to try and reduce the need for a 50 lane bridge across the harbour to a 40 lane, or at least make it really expensive. The inevitable rollout of smart meters in coming years will allow for time-of-use billing. But is it fair?

Two economists working for AGL Energy suggest not, arguing that it disadvantages businesses and the less wealthy – why should these people, they ask, be subject to higher energy prices and cross-subsidise others who decide to switch on their air conditioners all at once?

The AGL economists suggest a more complex billing system that would calculate tariffs not just on the time of use, but the change in use. This protects people who have more-or-less constant usage from the worst price spikes, while imposing greater costs on those who ramp up demand at peak periods because they are switching on air conditioners or other appliances. It sounds immensely complicated, but not beyond the bounds of smart meters, because they are, well, smart. Most of all, smart meters will allow consumers, and producers, to change the way they think about pricing. The days of low-cost energy are over, and they are not coming back.

In the meantime, if you’re struggling through the heat wave and your neighbours switch on the air conditioning, you might as well go round and ask to join them in the cool. After all, you’re paying for it.

The AGL paper referred to above can be found here - A New Approach To Congestion Pricing (pdf).

This paper was the subject of an article in the Climate Spectator last year - Australia's power paradox.
Australians are about to pay the price of cheap energy.

A landmark report by a team of analysts from AGL Energy suggests cheap energy and soaring incomes has lured Australians into larger homes with massive increases household appliances, particularly air conditioners. Now they are exposed to a looming price shock that could send retail energy prices more than doubling in the next five years, sending many homes into “fuel poverty.”

The AGL team led by economist Paul Simshauser identifies four primary causes for surging energy prices. The first is Australia’s great wealth of energy resources, which have historically been sold to energy utilities at a margin above extraction cost, but are now being developed at such scale for export that they have a potential to link with global energy indices and potentially cause a fuel cost shock in the domestic market.

This has already occurred in WA, where domestic gas prices are linked with the export price. AGL says that with a dozen new major gas plants planned in eastern Australia, most of it on the export market, a similar scenario could have a profound impact on energy costs.

The second cause is the rising cost of power plants, which has surged over the past decade, and is now being worsened by the higher cost of capital following the global financial crisis.

Thirdly, network infrastructure is now being forced to expand at record rates to keep pace with rapidly rising peak loads caused mostly by domestic energy use.

The move to lower emission technology is also forcing a shift from coal to gas, and to the increased use of high-cost renewable energy sources, although the AGL report says the impact of climate change and renewable energy policies on electricity prices is minor relative to these other drivers.

AGL has produced the report to argue for a range of policy measures. This includes rebating the estimated $1 billion-plus windfall in GST collections from rising energy prices to needy households, and to encourage the purchase of more efficient appliances by granting special credit policies to low income families.

It also wants prices to be deregulated, allowing for time-of-use tariff structures and the introduction of smart meters – not just so that people can view the the rate and cost of their own usage, but to allow demand management that will help shift consumption away from the peak load times that are adding to overall costs.

“The paradox here is, of course, that rising wealth has actually caused the pre-conditions for fuel poverty,” the report notes.

“In many respects, it’s as if consumers in NSW and QLD have historically been provided with a mispriced illicit electricity drug for long enough to establish a chronic addiction, at which point the price will progressively more than double.”

The report said the overwhelming majority of households will readily adjust their budgets to incorporate rising energy costs, as they are not unusual by global standards. But lower income households would face energy bills that could equate to 10 per cent or more of their household budgets. It estimates more than 340,000 households in NSW and Queensland alone could be tipped into “fuel poverty” – the “boomerang paradox” as AGL calls it.

The report said electricity prices in NSW and QLD have the potential to rise from about $130/MWh in fiscal 2008 to $255/MWh in fiscal 2015. Those prices soared above $300/MWh in its worst case scenario. It could not find a single element in the electricity cost stack that was not increasing at a rate faster than prevailing inflation expectations.

But one of the most material, although least certain, cost shocks could come from the upstream coal seam gas industry and the development of LNG terminals in Queensland. If this causes a link to the oil price, then the cost of existing CSG contracts will be more than doubled when they mature and are replaced with new ones.

And as new generating plant is installed in NSW and Queensland, then the long range marginal cost of baseload gas turbines will set the wholesale market prices rather than coal. In its most simplistic terms, the report said, whole-of-system average cost will rise from the coal-based $44/MWh in fiscal 2008 to a gas-based $71/MWh in fiscal 2015, or up to $98/MWh in a high gas price scenario. When the extremely low load factor of households is taken into account, these numbers ramp up to $100 - $130/MWh, excluding carbon taxation. “Importantly, for the Federal Government, their proposed CPRS and RET are not the cause of fuel poverty.”

Cross posted from Peak Energy.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Transurbanization – PIA NO.5

When Governments favor large scale projects with the stated aim of solving transport issues by cementing another freeway over the last remaining green space in your city – you are not alone feeling let down.

Steele and Gleeson argue that poor governance is partly to blame for the poor response of our elected leaders to the twin problems of oil vulnerability and climate change. The tendency of governments to restrict civic input, in favour of (confidential) private development interests, is behind much of this poor governance. 

Mind the governance gap: oil vulnerability and urban resilience in Australian cities

Wendy Elizabeth Steele and Brendan Gleeson. Pages 302-310

…Australia’s five largest capital cities have evolved into large metropolitan regions with complex, overlapping and often haphazard governance arrangements.

These cities all suffer to varying degrees what might be termed a ‘governance deficit’, meaning an absence of clear and effective institutional arrangements for the planning of urban development and the coordination of urban services, including infrastructure.

The first urban governance deficit is political…

Cities are human systems first, and built environments second. Contemplation of the built environment is critical but should flow from … this appreciation.

[T]oo often the ‘built environment’ rubric is used inappropriately to describe and lead urban discussion, policy and planning.

A second governance deficit confronting Australian cities … is the episodic attention by Commonwealth governments [which tends] to overlook the public policy significance of cities and urban regions.

The third deficit is a lack of political insight and responsibility at the most appropriate governance level  … the metropolitan region.

An absence of governance frameworks for the nation’s extensive urban regions displaces metropolitan political ambition and activity to local and state levels.

Steele and Gleeson note that state politics reveals the hostility between rural and regional and metropolitan electorates when it comes to development funds and planning, with upper houses in state parliaments favoring the former.

The fourth deficit is the resulting community disenchantment and cynicism regarding metropolitan planning that thrives in this context.

Communities sense the vacuum of leadership and responsibility [and] the absence of integrated urban policies and planning mechanisms. The ‘Transition Towns Movement’ is one type of community reaction to [this perceived] governance deficit around the issue of petroleum depletion.

The authors also mention ASPO and motivated individuals in this context. The following section though, is probably the most interesting.

[The] fifth deficit emerges from the waves of micro-economic reform that … have given new status and influence to private interests, especially in the field of infrastructure and urban management systems.

[C]hanges to infrastructure and planning … have widened the fiscal risk levels
and role of private interests in urban public policy and services. This … has re-orient[ed] the focus of planners towards infrastructure projects rather than strategic visions, sustainable policies or plans. Thus, despite the outpouring of strategic metropolitan plans across Australia that emphasize sustainability though compact urban form, ‘the surge of new urban investment schemes that emphasize large, complex and fiscally demanding infrastructure projects has weaken[ed] the influence of planning agencies … [on] metropolitan policy, in favour of infrastructure departments and ad hoc engineering project investigations’.

What follows is a sharp criticism of the new arrangements adopted by governments to “develop” urban areas; the public private partnership (PPP). The secrecy surrounding these arrangements, ostensibly out of so called “commercial-in-confidence provisions”, permits government bodies to avoid public scrutiny of the decision making process.  Planning responsibility/decisions can also become overly concentrated – perhaps witness the controversy surrounding some of Planning Minister Justin Maddens decisions in Victoria.

The broad scale ‘opening up’ of public infrastructure (e.g. energy and transport) to the private sector has resulted in newly competitive markets that ‘replace monopolies with highly fragmented and differentiated styles of service provision’.

These shifts do not typically attract the political, community and scholarly scrutiny they deserve.

The authors then illustrate the above using the example (unfamiliar to me) of the TransApex Scheme in Brisbane. The details are beyond a blog post and I leave it to interested readers to see the original. The authors argue that:

The TransApex project can be seen as an infrastructure initiative and not a mainstream planning ambition, as the full scheme was not foreshadowed or marked out in strategic or statutory planning instruments at the State or local level. It was pitched politically as a congestion initiative that would repair a decade or more of infrastructure ‘neglect’ by previous administrations.

However while the plan was proposed as redressing previous neglect, the proposed infrastructure would actually run counter to State and Council commitments to reducing car dependency and increasing sustainability.

The urgency and singularity that increasingly resonates in infrastructure politics is starkly at odds with planning’s claim to value deliberation and sustainability.

Increasingly, planning and, more generally, ordinary administrative processes, are cast both as inhibitors of needed development, including infrastructure, and unable to anticipate and respond to fundamental community need, especially the assumed imperative of free circulation. Fears around the impacts of the 2008 (and beyond) Global Financial Crisis (GFC) have already been mobilised as a ‘reason’ for further
paring away of process and accountability.

Which perhaps echoes the “Disaster Capitalism” or “Shock Doctrine” of Naomi Klein, in turn an extension of Chomskys Manufacturing Consent thesis. The remainder of the paper adresses the required changes if Australian cities are to become more resilient to the stress of oil price increases and shortages.

Fundamental to these changes is the need to bring oil debates in from the governance periphery to the centre, linked with the imperative of climate change. This means moving away from ‘business/politics as usual’ towards the active promotion of dynamic and sustainable metropolitan processes.

Several guiding parameters are proposed to help ameliorate the governance/policy failure perceived by the authors.In proposing infrastructure Governments need to consider:

. the spatial scale of causes and effects;
. the magnitude of possible impacts;
. the temporal scale of possible impacts;
. the reversibility of impacts;
. the measurability of factors and processes; and
. the degree of complexity and connectivity.